Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School

We did it! We drove from Chicago to Plains, Georgia to attend Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School! There is so much to say about the trip but I’ll write about just the Sunday School part first. The rest of it (like the 15-hour non-stop drive each way, the haunted hotel, the utter joy of traveling long distances in confined spaces with children, the town and people of Plains) I’ll save for later. If I try to squeeze it all into a single essay, I’ll get too overwhelmed and go take a nap instead.

In a nutshell: it was so worth it. It was worth every hour on the road, every gross rest stop, every lost bit of sleep due to my ten-year-old asking, “what was that? Did you hear that noise??” in the spooky hotel. I walked on air for about a week after we came home, which, as any parent who has experienced “re-entry” after a trip knows, that’s a good, long time.

But I already digress. You see how hard it is for me to stay on topic here? I have a several half-finished essays already. Come on, girl, pull it together! (Takes a deep breath, shakes self, slaps cheeks.) Here we go.

We woke up early Sunday morning to make it to church at 8:30. Miss Jan, who seems to run basically everything in Plains including the Maranatha Baptist Church, told us to be there at that time. So I did what anyone would do in this situation: I set my iPhone alarm to wake me up early so I could begin yelling at everyone to hurry up, for goodness sake, HURRY UP!

Six people in one room with one bathroom really should come with its own Keystone Cops soundtrack playing on an endless loop on an overhead speaker. It was super fun when child #3 locked himself in the bathroom to get ready, causing his big brother to pound on it and yell his name. Good times. We were running a few minutes late, of course, so I got us in the mood for church by continuing to yell “hurry up!” to my husband who was driving us along the backcountry roads of southeast Georgia slowly and safely because he will never, ever go over the speed limit. Really, nothing says “let’s all be present and think about God” like rushing, hurrying and hissing.

As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, I calmed down since I knew we weren’t going to get locked out of church (“Hey, remember that time Mom made us all drive to Georgia to go to Church, but we were late and we missed the whole thing??”). We checked in with the very polite secret service agents who were checking bags at a table near the door. I placed my violin case on the table and unzipped it to show them what was inside. They stared at my violin and then up at me.

“Ma’am? Umm…does anybody here…know that you’re bringing your violin to play at church?” I laughed so hard at the image of being the inappropriate guest who shows up with her violin in tow, whipping it out to play for people who never, ever asked for it. Once I assured them that Miss Jan knew, they laughed too, telling us they have seen it all before.

We had stopped by the Plains Historic Inn the day before while we were out exploring in order to meet Miss Jan. She and I had talked on the phone the previous month about our visit but I wanted to meet her in the flesh to make sure I hadn’t imagined the entire conversation. None of it felt real since I didn’t put down a credit card to reserve our room and basically, I had based and built our entire trip around this one phone conversation.

Good news– turns out I didn’t hallucinate a bit of it! My kids shopped in the antiques mall that she also ran (see what I mean?) while we talked. Yes, she had our room reservation all ready for the next night and yes, we’d be her guests at church. And yes, I could play my violin.

When she said that, a woman who was standing nearby turned to me and said, “I’m singing tomorrow at church! I’m Miss Lulu from Hee Haw.” When my daughter who has the nickname of Lulu heard that, she sighed loudly and said, “EVERYONE’S named Lulu.” And then she flounced away to find a fragile antique to break.

Back to the church: since we were special guests of Miss Jan, the secret service agents directed us to go in a different door, where we found her waiting. She greeted us as we walked in. “Why, hello, Miss Lynn. I have y’all right here in the front row, there’s room for all y’all and if there’s any room left, I’ll squeeze in there, too.”

Wait, what? The front row? Turns out Miss Lulu from Hee Haw wasn’t feeling well this morning and wouldn’t be singing or attending church. It’d just be me playing today. My husband and I looked at each other. We had been thinking of my Mom up in heaven pulling all these strings to make this trip happen, but now the expression “The meek shall inherit the Earth” was really hitting home. My Mom was the least pushy person I’ve ever met (why no, I don’t know where I get it from and you’re not the first person who’s asked that, by the way), but up in heaven she is a pushy Stage Mom. We were giggling thinking of her saying gently but firmly, “Step aside, Miss Lulu. My baby girl is going to be sitting in that front row today, playing. Oh, and my grandkids, too–make room, please.”

Miss Jan took our youngest by the hand with the promise of candy in the backroom and they left for a bit. We got the other kids settled in, and I stashed my violin under the pew. Our 5-year old came back with candy for everyone and we sat down. I took my violin out into the hallway and tuned it and not knowing what else to do or what was expected of me, I held it in my lap. The church was packed, with people sitting on folding chairs in the aisle. There were two separate camera crews, one directly in the back of the church facing the altar and one on the side row, also facing the altar. One was the church’s own cameras (they sell DVD’s and CD of each church service) and one was a news crew.

At 9:00AM, Miss Jan walked to the front of the church and held court. She explained how everything (and I mean everything) would work when President Carter came in to teach Sunday School. She advised us on how to address him, how to respond to questions, when you can and when you absolutely can not take pictures and how to answer the seemingly simple question of “where are you from?” –which turned out to be surprisingly difficult for some people.

Miss Jan was funny, smart, warm, firm, engaging and a heck of a public speaker. She’s a retired teacher—she taught Amy Carter when she was little—and it shows. She had everyone enthralled and a little intimidated. The Secret Service ain’t got nothin’ on her. Finally, she asked us to bow our heads for a prayer and when she finished speaking and we raised our heads, Jimmy Carter was standing in the front of the church.

We had spent the past two days trailing his footsteps in his town– from his childhood home on the farm, to his elementary and high school, to his Presidential headquarters and even to where he and Rosalynn live now. To suddenly see the man in the flesh right before your eyes gave us a jolt. He radiated warmth and kindness. I have never seen a brighter smile. Bear with me as I go woo-woo on you, but some people have very strong vibes– Jimmy Carter is one of those people.

He walked in front of the pews asking each section where we were from. Miss Jan taught us to only give the state, not the town. And if your state had already been called out by someone else, then you kept your mouth shut. It seemed like every state was represented. West coast, Midwest, East Coast and the South. And there were also visitors from Sierre Leone, Australia, Japan and Turkey. My kids kept track of all the states and countries by ticking them off on their fingers and whispering. Jimmy Carter then asked if there were any visiting ministers or preachers of any faiths present who would be willing to give the opening prayer. The woman from Sierre Leone answered yes and President Carter asked her if she would like to give her prayer in French or in English, because of course he knew what her native language was.

Well, that did it for me. Her prayer was so beautiful, so profoundly welcoming, spiritual and full of love that I started to cry. (Hey, this is why I didn’t wear mascara: I came prepared for strong emotions.)

Next, Jimmy stood at a lectern in front of the altar and began speaking. First, he talked generally, welcoming us and speaking of current events. One of the first things Jimmy Carter said was, “Let’s all relax. We are all equal here. We have to relax first so we can take it all in.”

I’m going to guess that his words were a Rorschach Test of sorts: everyone probably heard what they needed or wanted to hear from the same spoken words. I felt like he was speaking directly to me right then–the person who sometimes, on occasion, only every so often really, has trouble calming down, relaxing and taking it all in.

After we all took a collective deep breath and relaxed, President Carter started discussing politics, in much the same way someone might discuss the goings-on in the neighborhood. “Did you hear about the Andersons? Well, Bob was very upset because Joe Williams borrowed his mower and kept it for a whole month. In the middle of summer! Well, we all know how Joe can be so I tried to explain to Bob about Joe’s family situation and told him I’d see what I could do to get his mower back.”

But instead of talking about Bob and Joe and the lawn mower, Jimmy Carter said, “So, I talked to Putin last week. And wow, after Turkey shot down their plane, things are very delicate. We talked about ISIS and Syria and what he wishes the U.S. would do. I asked him if he had told Obama all of this and he said no. So I asked him if he wanted me to talk to Obama for him and he said yes. So I called President Obama and explained Putin’s point of view.”

We all hung on his every word. (Well, except my youngest child, whose tights were apparently too itchy and small so instead of listening to President Carter talk about Syria, she kept standing up in the front row, hiking her dress up and flashing the whole congregation, grabbing her tights and yanking them up while also wiggling her legs back and forth to scooch them up. She was sitting too far away from me, all the way down the row next to my husband, so I was shooting him daggers like, “STOP HER FROM DOING THAT” while also trying to relax and take it all in. My nerves.)

President Carter also talked about the work he and Rosalynn continue to do around the world, like eradicating River Blindness and Guinea Worm Disease through their work with the Carter Center based in Atlanta. Oh, and their work with Habitat For Humanity. And, ah yes, their work monitoring elections around the world. Feeling lazy yet?

Then he spoke about the work he does with a group he calls The Elders. First of all, I call dibs on writing a screenplay about this group. You hear me? Copyright. Done. All mine. This is a group of former heads of state, Presidents and Prime Ministers from around the world that no longer hold any official political office. They meet twice a year to discuss global issues and see where help is needed and where official government assistance is not being given. If the U.S. isn’t addressing a problem, for example, then they choose to go in and address it themselves, offering leadership, negotiations, aid, ideas and the power of attention that their involvement brings.

Jimmy Carter was wonderfully self-deprecating about the work they do, laughing at how it’s really just a club for retired folks. (When I write this screenplay, by the way, all these political Elders will be wearing capes and cool costumes when they attend their twice-yearly meetings. This is some serious real life Avengers/X-Men/Captain America stuff right here!) They are amazing and I am in awe.

After discussing politics, we picked our mouths up off the church floor and President Carter got into his preaching and teaching. His message was as loving as you’d expect. The Rorschach Test for me in this part was when he talked about what a Lighthouse on an island does: it shines a light to guide people to safety. “Does it run all around the island, forcing people to see its shining light?” he asked. “No. It stays put in one place, shining brightly for all to see. It doesn’t need to run around. It simply is.”

Well. Ahem. Sometimes, I am a lighthouse that runs all over the island, over every square inch of that sucker, shouting yelling flashing, “HELLO IS ANYONE EVEN WATCHING??” I’d really like to stop doing that. Jimmy explained how.

First of all, he said, think of the lighthouse as God. We are not the lighthouse, we are not the ones in charge. (WHAT? I know. I was shocked to hear that, too.) Our job is to reflect the light of God back to others. Not to run around trying to be the light. He said it again, “You have to relax. You can’t let in any of God’s goodness if you don’t relax first. You have to be relaxed and open to let it in. Are you listening, Lynn?” (Okay, maybe he didn’t say that last tiny part.)

“What are you reflecting back into the world?” he asked us again. “What are you sending out into the world that others see? If you don’t like what you’re sending out, you have to change it. Change it to reflect God’s light.” He spoke for 45 minutes but that was the part that really stood out for me.

When he was finished with his Sunday School, he and Rosalynn and their family got up and left the church for a little bit. It was right before 11AM and we all got up to stretch our legs and get a drink from the water fountain. It was here that my youngest, she of the itchy and too small tights, turned to me and said, “I’m done. I want to go home. I want to go back to the hotel.” Uh oh.

Judge not, lest ye be judged, people. I knew we still had to get through the actual church service, in the front row, in front of two camera crews and oh yeah, while I was playing my violin, too. Which meant my husband would be wrangling four kids in the front row all by himself. So I turned to her and I bribed her, hard core. I told her if she was able to sit and behave through church, I would let her pick out any souvenir she wanted from the store. She beamed and sat right down. Well, after pulling her dress up, flashing her underwear (hey, at least she was wearing underwear!) and rearranging her tights one more time, of course.

When it was time for church to start, the Carters came and sat in the pews with the rest of us heathens. The Pastor had come over to say hello after Miss Jan introduced me as the violinist. He was young, or I am aging exponentially, or maybe it was in contrast to President Carter. He asked if I would like to sit on the altar next to him to play. I turned panicked eyes to my husband and said, “No, thank you. I’ll be fine right here by the piano.” My husband whispered, “What’s happening here?” as the Pastor walked away.

Church started with us playing hymns, me standing behind Miss Jan at the piano and reading the music over her shoulder, just like I used to do with my Mom my whole life. I felt completely at home. I sight-read everything and it went beautifully because I was finally relaxed, just like President Carter said to be. When the Pastor began the service, he introduced me, saying where I was from and thanked me for playing for them today. That was strange because really, this was a dream come true for me. This was my greatest honor to play in Jimmy Carter’s church and I mean that with all sincerity.

This is how we were treated during our entire weekend in Plains and neighboring Americus, Georgia: like special guests. Everyone we met treated us with kindness, welcoming us wherever we went, engaging our children in conversation and treating us like old friends, honestly. It felt so good. It gave me insight as to why the Carters moved back home after leaving the White House.

So many things struck me during our weekend in Georgia that like I said earlier, I will be writing a million words about this topic, so please watch this space. One of the more mind-blowing things was to see Jimmy and Rosalynn as an unbelievable example of How To Age Well. I haven’t seen many examples of positive aging in my life. My parents really hit a wall in their 70’s with major physical ailments, plus I’ve seen other people age well physically, but not emotionally; they act old before their time. For them, everything is too hard, too scary, too much. We all know people like that.

And then, you have the Carters. They are a team, you can tell from reading about their lives together and seeing them as they are now. They are still traveling, still giving and still helping, still working. They are living the most purposeful lives I think I have ever seen. They are an inspiration. Just being in their presence made me want to be better, do more, try harder. I was so moved by their focus on helping others, on never stopping–no matter the cancer diagnosis or number of candles on the birthday cake. To see that this is an option for aging gave me hope; I’ve been scared of old age because I have seen so much suffering in aging family members. To see that there’s another way? Sign me up.

It seems to me that we aren’t used to Jimmy Carter’s gentle leadership style anymore. Some Americans like our leaders to be more like John Wayne: shoot first, ask questions later. Jimmy Carter talks in such a way so that no one has to shoot, hopefully, at all. He is a mediator, a peacemaker and a diplomat. He is thinking every day about what he is reflecting back into the world. Is he reflecting back the light from the Lighthouse? His work with his Carter Center in Atlanta is proof that he is. At the age of 91, he works tirelessly, promoting world peace, travelling wherever he is needed. Seriously, he needs a frigging cape. He is a Superhero.

It blows my mind that there are some people who aren’t aware of the kind of work Jimmy Carter has been doing since he left the White House. If you are one of those people, please, do yourself a favor and Google him. Read one of the twenty-nine (29!) books that he’s written. You will be amazed. You will be inspired. You will be in awe. I sure am.

Someone said recently about Jimmy Carter: “well, you know I’m a conservative republican, but I guess I do like him.” That was so absurd to me. It’s like someone saying, “well, you know, I’m a Lutheran, but I guess that Mother Theresa is okay.” This isn’t about politics or religion. It’s about recognizing someone’s greatness and goodness, regardless of what exactly you have in common with them.

Yet another thing I was blown away by was the town of Plains, Georgia. I had never spent this much time in such a small town: there are around 700 people that live there. The farm Jimmy Carter lived on from the age of four had no electricity or indoor plumbing until he was fourteen years old. And to think that he ascended from there to the highest office in the land in this day and age is remarkable.

More remarkable still is that the Carter’s chose to come back to Plains. That has me so intrigued I can’t stop thinking about it. What a decision! What a remarkable way to live your life, back where you started. And look how they’re doing it: they use their home in Plains as a base from which to explore the entire world, impacting nearly every nation on earth and involved with leaders from all over the globe. All of this work from their little corner of the world, where they are surrounded by people who have known them their entire lives. From a place where they belong to a modest and small church, where they teach Sunday School to anyone who shows up, or just their friends and neighbors from Plains. I am in awe of so much of this. I find it utterly fascinating and I can’t stop thinking about it.

Another thing I’m sure of: I will be going back. I want to soak up every ounce of wisdom he has to offer and really, just to sit quietly in his presence and if possible, play my violin for him again. After church was over, we had our picture taken with jimmy and Rosalynn, as did everyone who attended church that day. President Carter asked, would I please come back to Plains and play again?

Oh, my gosh. YES.

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